Mon, 07 Mar 2005

A while back it occurred to me that maybe I should attempt brief reviews of every movie I saw. Primarily to keep my critical faculties from atrophying.

I think I’d make a lousy critic. When I strongly like or dislike a work of art, it’s frequently beyond me to explain why. I tend to be a poor filmgoing companion for precisely this reason. I remember going to a movie with my then-girlfriend Eleanor in Vancouver – I think it was the A.S. Byatt adaptation Angels and Insects – and as the audience emptied onto the street Eleanor asked what I’d thought of it. “Don’t ask me that,” I replied, sounding rather more testy than I’d intended. We walked to the skytrain station in silence. I’d only meant that it was too soon after the movie ended for me to have formulated an intelligent opinion. (Even now, almost a decade later, I’m still not sure if I liked it or not. I do remember liking Kristin Scott Thomas.)

I’m a poor critic because I don’t have any theory of what constitutes art, and in the absence of such a theory, it is difficult to evaluate whether a work of art is good or bad. Or even whether it is, in fact, “art”. And yet, usually after reading a book or watching a movie (less often when listening to music, which to me is the most mysterious art form) I come out of it with a strong impression of “goodness” or “badness” or, most often, “okayness”. Where does this feeling come from? I’m too stupid to explain it. I’m too stupid to say for certain whether the properties of “goodness” and “badness” and “okayness” are intrinsic to the works of art they describe, or if they exist solely in my mind – and if it’s all in my mind, is there any point attempting to convince another person that my subjective response to Angels and Insects, or any other artwork, is more valid than his?

But surely there is some property that good artworks contain, which bad artworks do not? Surely there is a difference between The Man in the High Castle, a rather good book, and Alongside Night, a badly-written and stupid book? Is it simply that the former attunes more successfully with inborn human traits or acquired cultural prejudices re good storytelling – that it more closely resembles our instinctive sense of what a good story is – that it pushes our buttons more effectively? If that’s all it is – button-pushing – then I’m afraid all criticism is fundamentally meaningless. Because everybody has a different set of buttons. And if some yokel comes up to me and says Alongside Night is the most thrilling, insightful, and inspiring novel he’s ever read, how can I prove he’s wrong? I can’t grasp the layout of his buttons any more than he can grasp the layout of mine.

Having said all that, I believe that “goodness” and “badness” do exist, that they exist outside of ourselves, and that however incapable we are of isolating them or even proving they exist, it’s still important to try to identify them when we see them.

But I’m setting too large a goal for myself. All I want to do is record my reactions to some movies, in case my insights turn out to be interesting, for myself more than anyone else. I thought I’d start with the movies I’ve watched over this weekend.

[Note, August 15, 2011: This post originally contained reviews of the novels Alongside Night, A Kiss Before Dying, and The Man in the High Castle, which I’ve moved to a separate page.]

Goodbye Mr. Chips (film and book)

I took a long time getting around to James Hilton’s Goodbye Mr. Chips because I figured it would be unbearably sentimental. I thought it would make me cry, and it did. I am always slightly resentful of books and movies that make me cry. I think it’s because I mistrust emotional responses. I know how easy it is to be manipulated by swelling violins and soft-focus photography. The final seconds of the film version of Goodbye Mr. Chips provide a pretty good example of this. The adorable round-faced schoolboy moppet turns toward the camera and says, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips…goodbye…” This had me in tears, although I found the moppet in question extremely irritating.

I think my emotional reaction to the movie was mostly due to the memories it triggered of the much better book. All the anecdotes that in the book seemed so affecting were somehow muted in their cinematic form. Take the scene where Chips continues to teach his Latin lesson while the German bombs are falling all around the school. Chips bucks up his students’ spirits by directing them to read a passage by Julius Caesar describing the warlike tendencies of the Germanii. What the movie misses is that Chips is an impossible old coot, and that this act of stubbornness in the face of war is of a kind with his intransigence in teaching the old-style Latin pronunciation.

By excising the “hmphs” that punctuate his sentences, by pretending that his terrible Latin puns are funny, by exaggerating the degree of his camaraderie with his students, the filmmakers make Chips more likeable, and therefore somehow less loveable, than Hilton’s version. The point of Mr. Chips is not that he’s very wise, or very funny, or really very anything, except old. He’s an essentially boring, decent, cautious old guy who has devoted his life to a middling institution, and who dies more or less happy. In the book his final cheesy joke – “I’ve had children, thousands of them, all boys” – induces a slight wince, even as you tear up at Chips’ self-satisfied reflection that his utterance will be repeated with pleasure around the playground. In the movie, the cheesy joke is played straight – and leads right into that irritating round-faced moppet – and it’s just a bit too much, thanks.

Greer Garson is quite wonderful. I wish she’d had a few more scenes. Also, it took me a while to figure out that the young headmaster in the opening scenes of the film is the guy who played Freddy in the Leslie Howard version of Pygmalion.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Almost turned this off during the first couple minutes. Something about the irrepressible man-child loose in the city set off my Forrest-Gump-o-meter. Maybe it’s just that he was such a crappy actor.

After that, all good. I was genuinely surprised by the ending – I guess I figured Singer would ride off into the sunset, having set the lives of all these idiosyncratic southerners in order. But the movie is sophisticated enough to acknowledge the painful inner life of the saintly misfit. No Forrest Gump here.

Sondra Locke is perfect. Now I’m going to have to hunt down some of her later collaborations with Clint Eastwood, including that movie with the orangutan.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Strange how movies from the thirties dealt with sex. The women were lithe and beautiful and frequently flounced around braless in low-cut and backless gowns. Carole Lombard could reputedly match up profanity-for-profanity with the average longshoreman. And of course everyone fucked around with everyone else. Yet everyone involved in the film industry was obliged to pretend that they adhered to a morality imported on the Mayflower.

So this couple discovers after four years of marriage that due to a technicality they were never legally married in the first place, and suddenly the wife is too shy to get undressed in her husband’s presence? Get real. Imagine how great the screwball comedies might have been if they were allowed to occur in a sexual universe somewhat resembling this one.

Maybe the screwball genre is the logical outcome of this sexual schizophrenia? The only way to write a funny movie under the Hays Code was to take these ridiculous hang-ups to extremes?

Carole Lombard was simply a genius. Robert Montgomery also very funny, especially the scene in the restaurant, attempting to escape a bad blind date by breaking his own nose.

Shadow of a Doubt

I have nothing really to say about this, except the ending always struck me as a bit of a letdown. A few seconds of struggling, and then Uncle Charlie just kinda falls out of the train. We don’t even really glimpse how Teresa Wright manages to twist out of his grasp.

Now that I think about it, many of Hitchcock’s climaxes seem a bit weak. North by Northwest – tension builds, tension builds, and then the feds arrive and in seconds it’s all over. Rear Window – tension builds, tension builds, and then Jimmy Stewart loses his grip and drops and it’s not such a terrible fall, really. 39 Steps – a five-second shootout and that’s about it.

Never cared for that square FBI man who falls for Teresa Wright. Maybe Hitch deliberately chose a dud for the leading man part…on some perverse level, you’re kind of rooting for her to get together with Uncle Charlie.

Tea and Sympathy

Another one of those good movies whose sexual politics are so antique that you have a hard time getting emotionally involved. What if the kid really were a homo? Presumably all the abuse would then be justified?

I’m really starting to like Deborah Kerr, though. I saw Separate Tables not long ago and thought it was nearly perfect (except for Rita Hayworth, who is a terrible actor and was beginning to look a little too puffy to pass for an object of unqualified lust). Kerr and David Niven are especially touching. Also the scene where Burt Lancaster admits that he’s not in love with Wendy Hiller, and she accepts it with a heartbreaking English briskness.

End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones

Joey died too early to contribute much to the making of this documentary, which is a pity, because obviously the real story here is Johnny vs. Joey Ramone. Dee Dee and the interchangeable drummers are interesting but secondary characters.

Joey Ramone, the shy liberal with a fondness for surf rock and ’50s girl bands. Johnny Ramone, the outspoken conservative with a mania for “authenticity”, defined as hewing unerringly to the 1-2-3-4 grinding aesthetic of their CBGBs years. In early interview footage, Johnny dismisses a question about Blondie and other punk acts going “mainstream”: “If they wanna do disco, that’s their business. We’ve still got our artistic integrity.” What Johnny never grasped is that sometimes “artistic integrity” means something besides doing exactly the same thing, over and over again. Sometimes it means branching out, adapting, changing. The band’s collaboration with Phil Spector might have been ill-fated, but I wonder what might have happened if Johnny had been more willing to relax and try out different things.

Eventually Johnny stole, and later married, Joey’s girlfriend. Joey, the hopeless romantic, never forgave him. It’s hard to imagine the kind of girl who could move so rapidly from one of these guys to the other – it would be like dating Woody Allen and then Arnold Schwarzeneggar. Anyway, the tale only burnishes Joey’s image as the tragic loser-hero of rock-n-roll, the true raging id of male adolescent energy, much more so than the absurd Jim Morrison. Morrison is what we’d like our id to be, leather-pantsed and sexually dangerous. Joey is what our id really is: nerdy, angry at our parents, self-destructively violent, obsessed with horror movies, ambivalent about girls. I thank the gods that Joey Ramone ever existed. He showed us that there is a way to transcend, albeit imperfectly, the curse of being a freak.


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